Archive for September, 1999

 Bike Safety

On September 11, 1998 the car I was driving was involved in a serious accident with a bicyclist. Despite what the local paper reported, the cyclist broke both of his wrists and needed stitches in several places. For those of you who are into bike riding, please read this cautionary
tale. It could save your life.

 Why Trucks Suck

Trucks don’t kill people. People kill people. Yesterday, three people died.

They were killed by a man named Isaac Stewart. On March 15, 1999, eleven people died and another 122 were injured in Chicago by a man named John Stokes. Both of these men killed their victims using a truck. A tractor-trailer truck, or semi as it is called by some. Please note that the drivers are still alive, both walked away from their respective wrecks without a scratch, as is usually the case.¹ (As powerful and heavy as most of these trucks are, it takes colliding with something more significant than a puny automobile for the driver to sustain any injury, or even discomfort.) Which is great for the drivers, but what about their innocent victims? Who is to be held responsible for them?

There are three options to consider: either the government (state or federal), the trucking companies who own the trucks, or the drivers themselves. Frequent readers of this column know my stance on both personal responsibility as well as government intervention. So you may think the answer is a no-brainer. But it may surprise you to learn that I believe the answer to be a combination of all three.

In 1982, Congress passed the Surface Transportation Assistance Act which allowed for longer and wider trucks to travel our nation’s highways. This Act was intended to reduce the number of miles travelled by trucks, thereby decreasing the number of accidents. It has not had the intended effect, however. Instead, “increasing the size of the trucks has simply reduced the expense of distribution. Consequently, more businesses have begun using this mode of transporting goods…” (Bureau of Transportation Statistics). From 1980 to 1989, according to the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, “truck travel mileage in the United States increased by approximately 50 percent.” Granted, that statistic is a decade old, but I think one can safely assume, and I can certainly attest from personal observations, that the number of trucks on the road today is significantly greater than it was 20 years ago. So not only are there more trucks on the road, but they are greater in size (and presumably weight) than they used to be. It should also be noted that trucks are allowed, with few exceptions, to drive anywhere at any time on our nation’s highways. I believe this is one of the rare occasions where the federal government can make a beneficial contribution to the lives of every American. I would applaud any member of Congress who would not only repeal the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, but introduce federal legislation restricting truck traffic to the rightmost lane of our highways as is done in European countries.

In 1988, a company called Schneider National installed a system called OmniTRACS in its fleet of 9,000 trucks and began a revolution of sorts within the trucking industry. Rather than perpetuating a truck-driving culture based on Smokey and the Bandit, Schneider began teaching its drivers responsible driving techniques and consequently rewarding those same drivers for practicing them. With the OmniTRACS system installed, Schneider’s headquarters in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was able to monitor not only every truck’s position (which made customers very happy), but their average speed as well.

Schneider National [uses] precision logistics, rather than raw velocity, to win the moneymaking race. At Schneider, the 55 mph speed limit isn't just the law - it's also company policy. By keeping fuel costs down and reducing highway accidents, Schneider figured out that driving at 55 could be more profitable in the long run. And to underscore the point, the company decided to link driver bonuses - which can add more than 25 percent to a driver's pay - to compliance with a 58 mph limit. The rules of the game are simple: drive at or below 58 mph for 90 percent of the time (drivers are given a 10 percent "overspeed" allowance so they don't have to ride the brakes while going downhill) and bring home a bigger paycheck. Of course, there are no speed traps to avoid or radar guns to detect. As long as the motor is running, the OmniTRACS system will be watching your every move.
Wired Magazine, January, 1995

If all trucking companies in America would follow Schneider’s lead, rewarding their drivers for safe and prudent driving, there would be no need to impose federal restrictions on the drivers because their incentive for driving safely would be built into the job.

Trucking companies are at fault in other ways, however. Even if their drivers are competent and responsible, able to react in time and apply the brakes to stop their 40-ton behemoth before it kills someone, the brakes themselves might not be equal to the task². Tractor-trailer trucks are notorious for being badly maintained, and poor maintenance can only be blamed on cheap trucking companies who care more for the bottom-line than they do the safety of their drivers and those around them. In many cases, it is cheaper for a company to maintain good insurance through high premiums, than to maintain their fleet of trucks through regularly scheduled (and costly) maintenance. It is more profitable for them in the long run to pay for the cleanup of the occasional 16-car-pile-up, than to pay for the upkeep of a large fleet of trucks and trailers. Statistics seem to bear that out, since according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “one out of eight traffic fatalities in 1998 resulted from a collision involving a large truck.” Large trucks make up 3 percent of all registered vehicles on America’s highways, yet they are involved in almost 7 percent of all traffic accidents (NHTSA). While I would like to avoid government involvement in this area as well, if the trucking companies cannot demonstrate the ability to properly maintain their fleets, I think federal regulations concerning periodic inspections and weigh stations should be tightened, with heftier fines for violators.

Finally, we have the drivers themselves. In both of the incidents mentioned above, it has yet to be determined whether criminal charges will be filed against the two drivers. Certainly, we are all human and we all make mistakes. However, some mistakes are simply the result of poor judgement and could be avoided. Truck drivers make bad decisions from time to time. Whether it be the decision to exceed the speed limit to make up lost time, or the decision to try to outpace a train at a crossing, these drivers need to be held accountable. Especially when one considers the damage that can be done by a 40-ton vehicle moving at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour. The drivers need to realize that their vehicle is a hazard to those around them, and drive accordingly. We do not hesitate to punish a school bus driver who is caught endangering the lives of his precious passengers. But when a tractor-trailer driver behaves in a reckless manner, it is viewed as just being a part of highway driving. I believe that truck drivers involved in serious accidents should lose their licenses to drive big rigs forever. Furthermore, I believe that all of us have a role in policing our highways. When you see a truck perform a dangerous maneuver, report them. Many trucks have toll-free telephone numbers displayed for just this purpose. Use them.

I would love to see our highways completely rid of trucks one day. It’s possible (the subject of a future essay perhaps), but not very likely. But the suggestions above would go a long way towards improving the situation and making it easier for cars and trucks to peacefully coexist on our nation’s highways. In the meantime, all you truckers out there: slow down, get over in the right lane where you belong, and stay the hell out of my way!

¹ In 1996, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 379,000 crashes involving large trucks, there were only 621 driver fatalities.

² More information (in PDF format) on large truck brakes can be found here.